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Immigrants and Selective Service

What if I’m not a U.S. citizen?

Do I have to register? Could I be drafted?

Selective Service death's head with mushroom cloud

Non-U.S. citizens have all the same reasons U.S. citizens have to resist being drafted into the U.S. military, and perhaps additional reasons to oppose military conscription. But draft resistance can have additional adverse consequences for immigrants who eventually want to become U.S. citizens.

Many immigrants, especially draft-age and younger men, come to the U.S. to avoid being drafted into the military or national service in other countries. That was true in the 19th century, it was true in the 20th century, and it is still true in the 21st century. All that changes from year to year are which other countries’ systems of conscription these refugees and immigrants are fleeing.

All male U.S. “residents” between ages 18 and 26, including undocumented people, are supposed to register with the Selective Service System, regardless of citizenship. This includes U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (“green-card” holders), but it also includes non-U.S. citizens, dual citizens, and undocumented U.S. residents.

If you register with the Selective Service System, you can be drafted, if there is a draft, even if you are not a U.S. citizen.

The exceptions to the registration requirement are certain non-U.S. citizens who are in the U.S. as tourists or on “nonimmigrant” visas (including some student visas) and therefore are not considered “residents”.

The most severe administrative penalties for not registering with the Selective Service System are those against men who are not U.S. citizens: If you lived in the U.S. at any time between your 18th and 26th birthdays, but you didn’t register with the Selective Service System, you might be deemed ineligible for naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

You can register without penalty at any time until your 26th birthday. Many immigrants register just before they apply for naturalization.

You might be able to become a U.S. citizen even if you didn’t register before your 26th birthday, but you can’t count on it.

The Selective Service System (not a reliable or trustworthy source, and not the decision-making agency with respect to naturalization) says that:

  1. Men over age 31 will generally be deemed eligible for naturalization regardless of whether they registered with the Selective Service System (although it is possible that they could be deemed ineligible), and

  2. Men between the ages of 26 and 31 may be given a chance to submit evidence that their failure to register was not “willful”, in which case they might be deemed eligible. In the absence of such evidence, or if this evidence is considered insufficient, they will be deemed ineligible.

Most men over age 31 have been allowed to be naturalized even if they didn’t register, but this is a matter of administrative practice and interpretation. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could change how it interprets the law, at any time, without warning.

Some men ages 26-31 have been approved for naturalization as U.S. citizens after submitting statements with their applications for naturalization, “I did not register for the Selective Service because I was not aware of this requirement. If I had known about this requirement, I would have registered.” But there is no guarantee that such a statement will be accepted as sufficient, and the practices of USCIS officers reviewing applications for naturalization vary.

If you lived in the U.S. at any time between your 18th and 26 birthdays, and you aren’t sure whether you registered (or were automatically registered by getting a drivers license in some states, or in some other way), you should discuss this with an immigration attorney or advisor before you apply for naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

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This page most recently modified 4 December 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.